Australia in SA

Biff’s plan that ... nearly worked

2014-02-12 22:53
Graeme Smith (Gallo Images)

Centurion - There is a particularly infamous instance of a Test captain spurning the chance to get immediate runs on the board and his “bowl first” decision under a dazzling blue sky then failing in spectacular fashion.

In the first Ashes Test of 2002/03 at the Gabba in Brisbane, England’s Nasser Hussain chose the latter option after calling correctly against an Australian side in the midst of a heyday period.

He was motivated, legend has it, by the observation of some team-mates that a practice strip on the morning of day one was showing promising signs of liveliness and that perhaps the Test pitch would thus follow suit in the first couple of sessions.

So in went the Aussies ... and at the end of a violently lopsided day the scoreboard read 364 for two with Matthew Hayden on 186 not out, thank you very much.

Further legend has it that a wag in the England dressing room ventured at the close (and tellingly didn’t receive any laughter at all in reply): “Is it still doing a bit, skip?”

On the “Nasser Scale” of regrettable captaincy calls, Graeme Smith’s one at SuperSport Park here on Wednesday pales greatly in comparison.

Yet the fact remains that the Baggy Greens are nicely in the driving seat at 297 for four in the first Test against the No 1-ranked side and probably thinking that 500 is within grasp – almost always a safety blanket against defeat, at the very least – while the Proteas must try to somehow limit the damage to 400 or less, slightly against the odds now.

Expect some chortling Down Under, plus suggestions, no doubt, that Smith has handed the visitors a psychological advantage for the series as a whole by declining to take first strike against Mitchell Johnson and his fellow head-hunters on the glorious Highveld morning.

Deep down, after three sessions in which Australia only gained a stronger and stronger foothold, Smith will probably ruefully have conceded to himself that things didn’t work out at all in the manner he’d desired they would.

It is also public knowledge now that strike kingpin Dale Steyn entered the game debilitated by an overnight gastro bug, which meant he, for one, was a bit down on pace – though admirably not lacking in resolve -- at a time when putting down immediate markers for this late-summer combat was a valued objective.

But even with that drawback in mind, the truth of the matter is that the captain’s judgement cannot be called into significant question.

They always say you can weigh up the success or otherwise of fielding first by the lunchtime scoreboard, and his charges did hold the aces at the break: Australia were 83 for three and not long afterwards, when Steyn suckered Michael Clarke into a slightly lackadaisical skied pull, on the rack to a good degree at 98 for four.

That is not very persuasive evidence for saying “oops, wrong decision”, is it?

The pitch had certainly shown some spitefulness in the opening session, including exhibiting an up-and-down characteristic, and from that wobbly position by the batting side, South Africa were not at all far away from getting stuck into the tourists’ tail.

Instead the ball got softer (word is that it was unusually so, after not even 40 overs), the sun hotter ... and Aussie middle-order players Shaun Marsh and Steve Smith pretty much played out of their skins in a quite dramatic turnaround.

Their fifth-wicket alliance is already worth 199 and showing fair promise of blossoming further unless the Proteas’ fast men show much better energy levels than displayed when they finally took the new ball towards the end of the day’s play – Marsh and Smith only batted with greater contempt and verve after its appearance.

Marsh’s is a fairytale story of sorts: the left-hander was initially picked for the tour squad, then withdrawn through injury, before flying out (much closer to full fitness again) as late as Sunday to bolster the ranks after Shane Watson’s own mishap.

Hastily shooed into the side at No 4, he acclimatised notably speedily, didn’t he?

In what is still only the 30-year-old’s eighth Test, he is handsomely placed on 122 not out and has well in his sights his prior best score of 141 achieved on debut against Sri Lanka in 2011.

“Statistics for the ground say enough,” said Proteas all-rounder Ryan McLaren, when inevitably asked first up at the post-play press conference to explain Smith’s toss decision.

“Teams that have bowled first at this ground in the fairly recent past have tended to end up winning – I think that was the thinking behind it.”

Indeed, on the last two occasions at SuperSport Park where “Biff” has won the toss and bowled, his side have backed it up by duly bowling out Sri Lanka for 180 and, before that, India for 136 in comfortable respective SA victories.

Only in this case, Australia haven’t agreed to simply go belly-up.

“Maybe we could have increased the intensity a bit more, going into the second session,” McLaren, who was one of the better bowlers, conceded.

“Tomorrow’s another day and we have shown the character many times before to come back fighting ... I’ve got no doubt the boys will respond positively.”

They may need to.

*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing

Read more on:    proteas  |  ozinsa  |  graeme smith  |  cricket

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